TRAIKOS: Lightning GM says ‘sometimes the stars align for you’ in regards to Kucherov injury controversy

Nikita Kucherov is the NHL’s playoffs points leader despite missing the entire regular season following hip surgery.

Julien BriseBois knows how it looks, knows what people are saying.

How the Tampa Bay Lightning are exploiting the system. How they are going against the spirit of the salary cap. How they got to the Stanley Cup semifinal by basically cheating.

It all stems from the curious timing of Nikita Kucherov’s return from off-season surgery — and how Tampa Bay’s GM used the season-long absence of his superstar player to bolster an already star-studded roster. By placing Kucherov on long-term injury, the team did not have put his $9.5-million cap hit on the books. That not only allowed the Lightning to keep last year’s championship roster mostly intact, but also provided them the space to acquire defenceman David Savard at the trade deadline.

“Sometimes the stars align for you,” BriseBois said of Kucherov, who since returning from injury leads the playoffs with 18 points in 11 games.

Others, however, are not so sure everything is on the up and up. Some have accused the Tampa Bay of holding back Kucherov for the start of the playoffs, where his cap doesn’t count. Some have insinuated that the Lightning, which has long benefitted from Florida’s tax breaks, of playing by a different set of rules.

“We lost to a team that’s $18 million over the cap or whatever they are,” said Carolina Hurricanes defenceman Dougie Hamilton.

“I’m not a capologist, I’m a coach,” said Islanders’ Barry Trotz, whose team will play Tampa Bay in Game 1 on Sunday. “But I can tell you that Kucherov is a tremendous player. His skill set is off the charts.”

You could say the same thing about BriseBois.

This was supposed to be a year of hard decisions for Tampa Bay. With goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, centre Anthony Cirelli and defenceman Mikhail Sergachev all receiving raises, the team was going to have to make room for about $13 million in salary. It looked like a combination of Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson and Yanni Gourde would be heading out the door.

And then, a solution presented itself. A solution, mind you, that kept out a Hart Trophy winner for the entire season and potentially could have kept Tampa Bay, which finished third in the East Division, out of the playoffs.

“We had a player who needed surgery with a five-month expected rehabilitation time,” said BriseBois of Kucherov, who had suffered a hip labrum tear during last year’s playoffs.

“It just so happened that this season, because of extraordinary circumstances, was only lasting four months. So he was able to have surgery and miss the entire season. We got some cap relief during the season and he was able to come back a little sooner than expected and it so happened that it coincided with Game 1 of the playoffs.

“I’m actually happy it came out that way, because he’s such a big part of our team. But that’s just how it played itself out and sometimes the stars align for you.”

BriseBois made a point of mentioning that the NHL investigated the circumstances surrounding Kucherov’s injury, as well his recovery and his return — and that “everything was done according to the rules.”

But if you weren’t skeptical that Kucherov sat out for longer than he needed, just to help the Lightning become cap compliant, you probably were after seeing how quickly he got up to speed.

In his first game back, Kucherov scored two goals and picked up an assist. He then went on a four-game point streak, finishing the first-round series against Florida with 11 points in six games. Against Carolina in the second round, he had two goals and seven points in five games.

So much for needing a month or two to shake off the rust.

“What I think we have to marvel at is, to come into the situation he did, at such an intense game, at such a high level and be able to perform the way he did is remarkable,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “But he’s a remarkable player. And you can count on one hand the guys that you can make an argument for best player in the league — he’s one of them.”

As much as this seems like a case of too good to be true, BriseBois said the thing to keep in mind is that it could have easily have gone a different way. Other players within Tampa Bay’s organization, such as Gourde and Brayden Point, have undergone a similar surgery as Kucherov required. The recovery is not always smooth. The timeline can vary. The player can be a shell of his former self.

It just so happens that, in this case, everything went according to plan.

“I didn’t know how things would unfold,” he said. “Luckily for me and for the organization, I don’t think they could have unfolded any better.

“But at the time, when I was looking at all the possible scenarios and all the possible outcomes, none of them were as good as this one.

“There were a lot of them that we’re very good, that’s all I can say.”

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